University ranking foolishness. Let’s join a rat race!


So, we are planning to have 10 universities in the global top 100 by 2025. While at the same time as we decrease university funding, we are to have more successful research intensive universities on a global basis? And by the way, let’s not actually focus our efforts on a few (say 8 or 10) research intensive universities allowing the remainder to focus on high quality teaching. Let’s maintain our current one-size-fits-all approach and expect mediocre education policy to create great universities.

The government’s ‘white paper’ objective to have ’10 in the global top 100 by 2025′  is, understandably, creating some interest, at least in the university sector.  A summary of the debate is here. Andrew Norton correctly notes:

There doesn’t seem to be any intellectual or policy basis to this target.

Yes! Why 10? Which rankings? Why focus on rankings that emphasise research? Is there any underlying commitment to this goal reflected in government policy? Is it simply nice-sounding waffle?

There have been some attempts to measure the amount of funding needed to reach the ’10 by 2025′ goal.

Ross Milbourne, vice-chancellor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and an economist, has estimated that lifting up the next five would require an extra $10 billion a year in research funding.

I haven’t seen Ross’ work but it almost certainly ignores strategic effects. In particular, the ’10 by 2025′ goal is signing us up to a silly rat race. Other countries have also signed up to this rat race. Remember, there can only be 100 universities in the global top 100. So the issue is not just our universities going up the rankings, but who do we push out?

The top 100 is currently dominated by US universities so is the US government and higher education system going to just let their universities ‘drop out’ to let us in?

And what about our Asian neighbours? The top-ranked Chinese universities come in between 151-200. Do we really think that the (totalitarian) government in China is going to let this matter of national pride continue? How many Chinese Universities will be funded to be in the top 100 by 2025? Is it 10? 20? And who will they push out?

And what about other Asian neighbours who are investing rapidly in their higher education system? Excluding Japan (and Israel), there are NO top 100 Asian Universities today. Even if there is only 5 to 10 new entries in the top 100 from Taiwan, Korea, etc, that means 5-10 others are forced out. There can only be 100 universities in that top 100.

The ’10 by 2025′ goal is not just unfunded ‘pie in the sky’. It is silly, destructive policy. Our aim should be to have the best possible university system providing a diverse range of educational experiences to students within Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region. Education is not a rat race, but that is what the government wants us to sign on to.


8 Responses to "University ranking foolishness. Let’s join a rat race!"
  1. a nice example of a clear lie. But of the sort that comes with no consequences and thus is also fairly harmless. Look at it from the other side: every university in every submission to the government for more money can now point to this goal. Who loses?

  2. Well, according to the latest THE rankings (see there are already 6 Australian universities in the top 100. This includes 6 of the G8 institutions, with the remaining 2 located in the top 200 of that particular ranking. For all I can see universities here HAVE already joined the rat race and it is not clear to me that they have much of a choice. Like it or not, these rankings impact institutional reputation and drive much of the student recruiting (see here and here, see also the reviews of that book that are linked on that page, and Hazelkorn’s Chronicle article). The fact is that Aussie universities are majorly dependent on the funding that foreign students contribute. That’s why universities joined this particular rat race quite a while ago. It is, after all, the high percentage of foreign students in those universities that allows for the cross-subsidization of domestic graduate and undergraduate teaching as well as of research (the latter typically feeding straight into the rankings). Cross-subsidization of managerialism, too. See Paul’s recent blog entry.

    While I agree that the discussion that you propose is necessary, I fear it’s too late to have academic arguments about the desirability of it all, and for that matter about academic self-governance, academic managerialism, academic freedom, the public purpose of education, and what not. The train has (long) left the station.

    • I wonder about this effect of rankings. I am not sure. For one, you have big numbers in low-ranked inner-city universities by overseas students who could have chosen to go elsewhere in the same city so there must be something else going on than a single ranking. What is also striking is that the ANU is often cited by the Chinese students I talk to as the best place in Australia, but yet there are so few of them there. I thus suspect many students come for the lifestyle, the Visa, and a relatively easy degree, with rankings being low down the list (they have already given up on those). The number of students you get is then more a function of your efforts to recruit them. Overseas visitation efforts are big.
      Yet, there is a huge game going on with all those various accreditations. Every university is top of something and advertises it. Its a bogus game that takes up lots of resources, but most universities play it. That must have a reason.

      • Well, according to Hazelkorn and the authors of the other study I linked to that is the game that is being played. And, notwithstanding the fact that all kinds of motivations go into these decisions (and that lifestyle considerations are among them), from my own observations that is a significant part of the explanation But even if it weren’t: As long as university administrators believe that is the game that is being played that will be the game being played. And it seems pretty self-evident (by way of Australian universities’ ascent in the THE rankings, for example) that administrators believe they play it.

        • I had a look at some of the reviews of Hazelkorn’s book. Nothing major to disagree with in them (although the arguments about inter-disciplinary stuff is same the old worn-out tune), but she seems to have no evidence of student numbers in Australia moving because of rankings.

          It is clear that administrators care about these rankings and see them as a visible measure of their own performance. Indeed, that dynamic has been very good for economics in this country. The bigger question whether these rankings have helped universities (or Australia as a whole) attract foreign students is much more important and unanswered.

          • Agreed. It’s hard to answer this bigger question since it is not easy to assert the counterfactual. Enrollment growth of foreign student over the past decade could provide some indication. After all, as Hazelkorn somewhere points out, the relevant pool of students that we are talking about has just 3 or 4 million students internationally and probably has not grown that much. Anyways, yes, an interesting question.

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